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Senate Approps Says DOD Should Allow Competition in Space Launch, No to ASSIST

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) wasn't the only military space program of concern to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The appropriators also singled out the need for more competition in the space launch arena for comment, and zeroed a $416 million request for the ASSIST program. The latter is intended to reduce the Department of Defense's (DOD's) costs of leasing commercial communications satellite capacity.

The committee approved its version of the FY2012 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2219) on Thursday and released the accompanying report (S.Rept. 112-77) yesterday.

The committee said it supports DOD's plan to buy eight core Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) per year for the next five years in order to "stabilize production capacity and control costs," but stressed that DOD's goal really should be to significantly reduce the cost of launch. Competition is the solution, it said. "The Committee intends to examine future budget requests to balance the need to stabilize the EELV industrial base with the need to promote competition. Therefore, [DOD] is urged to retain flexibility with its block-buy acquisition strategy as opportunities for competition by new launch entrants become available."

SpaceX has made no secret of its desire to offer space launch services to DOD with its existing Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle it plans to develop. On its website, the company asserts that "If allowed to compete, SpaceX can help [DOD] save at least one billion dollars annually in space launch services."

The committee zeroed DOD's $416 million request for the Assured SATCOM Services in Single Theater (ASSIST) program (called SATCOM Services Enhancements in the DOD budget request documents). As explained in the committee's report, under ASSIST, DOD would lease a single commercial communications satellite operating in both the Ka- and Ku-bands instead of leasing capacity on multiple commercial communications satellites as it does now. The Senate appropriators reported that DOD estimated the cost of leasing a new satellite would be paid back in two and a half years "if satellite communications were to continue to be purchased in the same method and volume as they are today." The committee is skeptical about those assumptions, however. Saying that it had "learned of a number of innovative proposals from commercial providers," it zeroed the request, which is part of the Defense-Wide Procurement account. Instead, it recommended that DOD conduct an Analysis of Alternatives of how best to meet its satellite communications needs.

Senate Appropriators Want DOD To Start Over on Weather Satellite Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Saying they did not want "to repeat the costly mistakes of the NPOESS program," Senate appropriators told the Department of Defense (DOD) to terminate the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) and start over.

DWSS is DOD's part of the restructured National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). It was created when the White House decided to end NPOESS -- a joint program among DOD, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA -- and return to past practice of having separate weather satellites for the civil and military sectors. NOAA and NASA are now trying to win support for their civil system, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), while DOD is trying to restructure its part of NPOESS into DWSS. NPOESS was being acquired through DOD and DOD holds the contract with Northop Grumman.

The Senate Appropriations Committee made their unhappiness with this arrangement clear in its report (S. Rept. 112-77) on its version of the FY2012 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2219). The report was released yesterday.

Saying the DWSS program "remains challenged by a difficult and confusing set of management issues," the committee zeroed the $445 million request and replaced it with $250 million for "continued common sensor development, as well as requirements definition and source selection activities for a full and open competition for a follow-on program."

It also provided $150 million to cover termination liability costs for ending the Northrop Grumman contract.

In its version of the FY2012 defense appropriations bill, the House halved the DWSS request. The House Appropriations Committee's report on the bill (H. Rept. 112-110) says only that the cut was due to "excess to need -- poor justification."

Projected UARS Reentry Moves Up A Day

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

NASA has updated its projection of when the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) will reenter.

The UARS website reports that reentry is now expected on September 23 -- this coming Friday -- plus or minus a day. The previous projection was September 24.

It is still far too early to estimate where pieces of the satellite might land. The Earth is 70 percent covered with water, so there is a good chance the pieces will not hit land at all, but there is a possibility. NASA's risk assessment concluded that there is a 1 in 3,200 chance of a human casualty.

NOAA, NASA, GAO To Testify on JPSS at HSS&T Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee has released the names of the witnesses who will testify about the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) next Friday.

The September 23 hearing will feature Kathy Sullivan, Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Christopher Scolese, Associate Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); and David Powner, Director, Information Technology Management Issues, Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The topic is "From NPOESS to JPSS: An Update on the Nation's Restructured Polar Weather Satellite Program." NPOESS was a joint Department of Defense(DOD)-NOAA-NASA program to build a single U.S. weather satellite system to service both the civil and military sectors. After many years of cost overruns and schedule delays, the Obama White House restructured the program last year, restoring the historical arrangement of separate civil and military systems.

NOAA has been struggling to build support for its new system, JPSS. (NASA is NOAA's acquisition agent for the program.) The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have each recommended almost, but not quite, as much as NOAA requested for FY2012 ($1.07 billion) after a significant shortfall in FY2011.

DOD also is struggling to build support for its new system, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS). The Senate Appropriations Committee just recommended terminating DWSS and starting all over again with a new competition to build the system. The House Appropriations Committee cut DOD's request ($445 million) in half.

Many in Congress are skeptical of the agencies' abilities to manage these programs after years of problems with NPOESS.

Maria Zuber to Join Witnesses At HSS&T Human Spaceflight Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

MIT's Maria Zuber has been added to the list of witnesses for the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee hearing on human spaceflight next week. The geophysicist is the principal investigator of the GRAIL robotic mission to the Moon launched earlier this month.

The other witnesses are well known advocates of human spaceflight: Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, and former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. They are expected to argue that human exploration of the Moon should be a national priority.

The hearing is on Thursday, September 22, in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building at 10:00 am EDT.

UPDATED: Senate Approps Approves Defense, CJS Bills, but CR Looms

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The committee now has posted the reports to accompany the four bills it approved yesterday. This article has not been changed to reflect that additional information, but a new article will be posted soon.


The Senate Appropriations Committee approved four FY2012 appropriations bills yesterday, including defense and Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS). The latter
includes NASA and NOAA. Congress is far from completing action on the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the government after midnight September 30, however, so a Continuing Resolution (CR) is inevitable.

The Senate Appropriations Committee still has not posted details of what is in the defense or CJS bills. What is known publicly at the moment is that defense was frozen at last year's level of $513 billion, $26 billion less than requested and $17 billion less than what the House approved. NASA's budget was reduced to its FY2009 level of $17.9 billion, $509 million less than its current spending level and $785 million less than the request, but $1.1 billion more than what the House Appropriations Committee approved. The Senate committee not only restored funding for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), but provided more money than NASA requested so that it could be launched in 2018. The House Appropriations Committee voted to terminate JWST because of its cost overruns. The House has not yet considered the CJS bill; it only has been approved at the committee level.

Where the Senate committee cut the NASA FY2012 request is not publicly known yet.

NOAA fared better overall in the Senate committee's markup than in the House committee, but funding for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is about the same. The House committee cut NOAA's budget request of $5.5 billion to $4.5 billion; the Senate committee approved $5 billion. The Obama Administration requested $1.07 billion for JPSS as part of the NOAA budget. The House committee approved $901 million; the Senate committee approved $920 million.

In total, House has passed six of the 12 annual appropriations bills and the Senate has passed one. With FY2011 quickly drawing to a close, House Republicans -- who sharply criticized Democrats during last year's elections for not being able to complete work on the appropriations bills in a timely manner -- are conceding that they will not either. They are proposing a CR that would last through November 18 and includes an across-the-board cut of 1.5 percent from current levels according to a summary posted on the House Appropriations Committee's website.

Note: This article has been clarified to indicate that the amount approved by the committee for NASA is $509 million less than its FY2011 spending level of $18.448 billion. It is $775 million below the FY2012 request of $18.724 billion.

UPDATE 4: Three ISS Crew Undock, Headed Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 4: Touchdown!

UPDATE 3
: NASA TV announcer says that an Antonov aircraft has confirmed it is in voice contact with the crew and they are OK.

UPDATE 2: Capsule separation should have occurred at 11:33 pm EDT (about 7 minutes ago), but there appears to be a communications problem and Moscow ground control has not been able to confirm it with the crew.

UPDATE 1: The deorbit burn is underway.

ORIGINAL STORY: Three of the six International Space Station (ISS) crew members are in their Soyuz spacecraft and have undocked from the ISS as they head back to planet Earth.

Russian cosmonauts Andrei Borisenko and Alexandr Samokutayev and NASA astronaut Ron Garan are in the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft. They undocked from the ISS at 8:38 pm EDT (00:38 GMT Friday). Landing is expected at 12:00 am EDT Friday (11:00 pm CDT Thursday).

NASA TV is providing live coverage.

Senate Appropriators Rue Cuts to NASA Technology, Constrain Availability of Commercial Crew Funds

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

An updated edition of our fact sheet on NASA's FY2012 budget request is now available reflecting the actions taken by the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday. The committee posted the report to accompany the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (S. 1572) today, providing details on the "puts and takes" that resulted in the final total of $17.9 billion recommended for the agency.

The Senate committee-approved amount is $509 million less than NASA's current spending level and $775 million less than the FY2012 request. That sounds like bad news, but it is $1.1 billion more than what the House Appropriations Committee approved, so in these austere budget times, it actually seems like good news! It is roughly the same amount as the agency received in FY2009.

The report (S. Rept. 112-78) shows that the $775 million in cuts from the requested level were taken from every NASA budget account except science, education, and the Inspector General's (IG's) office. Science received $84 million more than requested while education received the same as the request and the IG office received $1 million more than requested.

The biggest cuts were to space technology and commercial crew. Space technology was provided with $638 million compared to its $1.024 billion request. The committee said that it "regrets not being able to fund this promising new program more robustly." Commercial crew was allocated $500 million compared to the request of $850 million. The committee made availability of $192 million of that contingent upon NASA moving forward with the Space Launch System, however.

The committee added $156 million to the $374 million requested for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) so that the telescope can be launched in 2018. The total amount for the Science Mission Directorate, of which JWST is part, was increased by $84 million. Cuts to Earth science ($32 million) and planetary exploration ($40 million) made up the difference. The committee blamed NASA for not requesting adequate funds for JWST in prior years, saying that "budget optimism led to massive ongoing cost overruns." It capped the development cost for JWST at $8 billion, noting that NASA's current cost estimate for the project is $8.7 billion (which includes some funding for science operations).

Neither the House nor Senate has voted on the CJS appropriations bill yet, so there are several more steps to go before NASA's FY2012 budget will be finalized. Assuming no changes are made when the bills are debated by those bodies, they still need to reach a compromise between the two very different versions of the bill.

Nobelist John Mather to Headline Rescheduled JWST Webinar

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The webinar scheduled by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) to make the case for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be on September 21 instead of September 19 and the speaker's list has grown in number and clout. Among those joining the event is Nobel Prize winner John Mather whose name is almost synonymous with JWST.

The webinar will take place at 2:00 pm EDT. To register for it, go to this website. The current speakers list includes the three originally scheduled (Mountain, Smith and Abraham) plus four others. The complete list is:

  • John Mather, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Nobel Prize (2006), Senior JWST Project Scientist and Chair of the JWST Science Working Group
  • Rick Howard, JWST Program Director at NASA Headquarters
  • Eric Smith, JWST Deputy Program Director at NASA Headquarters and former JWST Program Scientist
  • Matt Mountain, STScI Director
  • Julianne Dalcanton, University of Washington
  • Roberto Abraham, University of Toronto
  • Jonathan Lunine, Cornell University

JWST supporters were cheered by the Senate Appropriations Committee's decision yesterday not just to approve the $374 million requested for JWST for FY2012, but to increase it to $530 million so the telescope can be launched in 2018. By contrast, the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) directed that the project be terminated and included no funds for it when marking up its version of the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NASA (the Commerce-Justice-Science or CJS bill).

Neither the full House or Senate has voted on the CJS bill yet, and after that they must reach agreement on a final compromise version of the bill, so there are still many steps in the process to determine how much money the project will get. HAC wants to terminate the project because of significant cost overruns and schedule delays. Advertised by its advocates as the successor to the wildly popular Hubble Space Telescope, they are hoping to convince those who pay the bills that the resulting science is worth the cost. The current estimate is $8.7 billion.

NASA to Hold Commercial Crew Forum Friday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA will hold a commercial crew program forum on Friday (tomorrow) at the Kennedy Space Center press site.

The forum is from 11:00 am - 12:00 pm EDT and will be broadcast via a webcast at http://commercialcrew.nasa.gov.

Events of Interest

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